Venice soars with eco-terror thriller 'Night Moves'

The Venice competition sprang to life on Friday with Kelly Reichardt’s superb thriller "Night Moves", about radical environmentalists in Oregon. Another US entry, David Gordon Green’s "Joe", was weaker, despite Nicolas Cage's best efforts.


After a sleepy start, the 70th Venice Film Festival competition got a bracing wake-up on Friday with “Night Moves”, Kelly Reichardt’s disquietingly beautiful, deeply intelligent thriller about radical activism and its consequences -- both material and moral -- in 21st century America.

A high point not just of the line-up thus far, but also of the director’s short, though distinguished filmography, the movie tells the story of three Oregon environmentalists who plot to blow up a hydraulic dam, the emblem of an industrial culture they see as ruining the world.

A riveting moral thriller

The central figure is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg, right), a reserved young man who works on an organic vegetable farm. His partners in protest are Dena (Dakota Fanning), a college dropout from a wealthy family, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a jaded former Marine.

The first half of “Night Moves” details the trio’s preparation for their mission: the brainstorming, the logistical setbacks and re-adjustments, a bit of bickering, and a hint of a love triangle -- though the rigorously melodrama-averse Reichardt wisely never pushes that angle.

Through small, perfectly observed moments, Reichardt (working with screenwriting partner Jon Raymond) suggests that united as they may seem, the main characters have arrived at their extremism from different paths and places: Josh, who rarely thinks out loud or justifies his actions, seems to be the most persuaded of the three; Dena’s anti-establishment, ecologically inclined views may or may not stem from a reflex of rebellion against her privileged upbringing; and Harmon sometimes appears to be torn between revolution and pursuit of pleasure.

In the film’s second half, we see these three commit their act of “eco-terrorism” -- and then deal with the aftermath. Reichardt’s characteristically thoughtful, unobtrusive style, a model of visual precision and economy, turns slightly more voluptuous as the story darkens, winding its way through some surprising twists. The final act of “Night Moves” finds the filmmaker using music, shadow and light, close-ups and atypically dramatic camera angles to gently push the tension to its limits. Meanwhile, images and moments from early in the film -- women emerging from a sauna, a shot of Josh’s trembling hands, an encounter with a garrulous hiker -- take on new meaning in the closing sequences.

Sarsgaard is terrific, as always, but “Night Moves” hinges mainly on the other two leads, both superb. Eisenberg usually plays chatty neurotics, but he has a coiled, mysterious quality here; he makes Josh both frightening and fragile. Fanning, who began her career as an eerily self-assured child actress, has mellowed into a distinctive adult screen presence, with slightly smudged-looking features and a soft voice that fools you into thinking she’s barely acting.

Most gratifying of all, though, is the way “Night Moves” shows Reichardt (right) developing and refining both her craft and her thematic obsessions. Her films have all dealt in some way with Americans struggling against the dominant ethos of their time: “Old Joy” revolved around the fraying bond between an upwardly mobile thirty-something and his hippie-dippy childhood friend; “Wendy and Lucy” followed a cash-strapped female drifter whose desperate search for her lost dog gradually reveals just how far outside society she has strayed; and in “Meek’s Cutoff”, a pioneer woman comes to realise her discomfort with the submissive role imposed on both her and the Native Americans living on the land she and her husband are trying to find and settle.

In “Night Moves”, Reichardt continues exploring her ideas about the limitations, pressures and dilemmas of American non-conformism. Like most good filmmakers, she discovers more questions than answers. But in the process, she secures her spot as one of the very best US directors working today.

Nicolas Cage can’t fully save ‘Joe’

The presence of another film, David Gordon Green’s “Joe”, in the competition line-up came as further evidence of Europe’s ongoing fascination with the American South.

Recent Cannes and Venice entries included “The Paperboy”, “Mud”, “Killer Joe” and “Texas Killing Fields”, movies in which the South is painted with broad, pulpy strokes, its atmosphere heavy with sex, smoke, booze and violence. Whether or not they offer an accurate depiction of the region, the films fit a certain European image of rural America as a land peopled by wild, trigger-happy folks who speak in drawls so thick and slang so local you can barely make it out as English.

In “Joe”, the title character is a former convict (Nicolas Cage) who employs and then becomes a sort of surrogate father to Gary (Tye Sheridan), a lonely teen with a wreck of a home life. Indeed, Gary’s abusive alcoholic father, zoned-out mother and mute sister are such a vision of backwoods dysfunction that you breathe a sigh of relief when the boy starts hanging around Joe, who projects an air of gruff decency.

What Gary doesn’t initially know, but will soon learn, is that Joe is a bit of a sociopath himself: an essentially kind-hearted, but hard-drinking brute who has a hard time keeping his violent impulses in check.

Green is a wild card in US cinema. He began his career with “George Washington” (2000) and “All the Real Girls” (2003), lyrical indie portraits of small-town American life (the latter an almost embarrassingly tender romance that stands as his strongest work to date), before going mainstream in crass comedies like “The Sitter” (2011). This summer, Green threw us another curveball with “Prince Avalanche”, a buddy picture saved from its forced absurdism by unexpected flights of feeling and visual panache.

The director’s new film, adapted from a 1991 novel by Larry Brown, reflects his all-over-the-map tendencies. Its first half is vivid and absorbing, with some tour de force scenes of Joe’s African-American employees trash-talking on the job (their work consists of poisoning trees so they die and builders can swoop in). Cage’s Southern accent comes and goes, but he projects the right mix of kindness and danger, and it's good to see him tackle a meaty role after so many recent duds. Sheridan, who shined in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud”, is even better: he makes Gary flinty but soulful, a smarter-than-he-looks kid trying to make the best of a wretched life.

But in the movie’s second hour, Green loses control of his tone, which swings uneasily from Southern Gothic to black comedy (an unfunny running gag involving a neighborhood prostitute’s aggressive dog has an ugly punch line) to Western to melodrama. Meanwhile, as the relationship between Joe and Gary deepens, the director stages some trite bonding scenes that feel out of place in a story of stoic men caught up in crosscurrents of violence, alcoholism and poverty. By the time we get to a climactic, though wholly predictable, kidnapping, “Joe” feels like a missed opportunity.


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